Who is going to find the winning energy in F1’s power cut? It’s too close to call right now
You’ve heard it many times before at this time of year, but as we head into what promises to be a fascinating season, there really is a sense that 2006 represents a step into the unknown.
Just as rules stability allows the pack to close up, as was evident last year, so a major set of changes serves to shake things up. The switch to V8 power has proved to be a major undertaking — while most engine men admit that they were able to carry over a lot of knowledge from the V10 era, the downsizing has had a much wider impact, especially on aero departments.
The emphasis has switched from finding every last scrap of downforce to improving overall efficiency in a general quest to find straightline speed sapped by the power cut. In turn the smaller engines have allowed designers to create tidier and less draggy rear ends, while the reduced cooling requirement has also favoured drag reduction. All this means that the guys in the wind tunnels have been as busy as if they’d been saddled with a major rules change, and not all of them will have got it right.
The final year of tyre competition is of course key to what happens this year. With the teams now shared out on a more equitable basis Bridgestone is in a much stronger position, but it would be wrong to assume that the return of race tyre changes will automatically see the Japanese company bounce back to where it was in 2004, or that Michelin will do a worse job than it did last season. The contest really is wide open, and will no doubt ebb and flow as the year goes on.
So who’s looking good? At the time of writing the last of the new cars were making their testing debuts, and it was still way too early to get a clear picture. However, Renault and Honda appeared to be in good shape out of the box, while McLaren (engine woes) and Red Bull (cooling calculations out) were not. All the other significant players were somewhere in between, although some had yet to really show their hands.
Whatever happens in Bahrain on March 12, it won’t necessarily tell the full story of what might unfold over the full 19 races. There is certainly a big advantage to be gained both there and especially in Malaysia a week later. The new engines, running consecutive weekends in searing heat, will be given the ultimate test right at the start of the year.
But the pace of development at the major teams is now so extraordinary — Toyota already has a revamped TF106B scheduled for Monaco — that as the European season gets going and temperatures drop, the picture could change dramatically. It’s going to be fun!